As our editorial team prepares for our first contest (The Anne C. Barnhill Prize for Creative Nonfiction), we thought it would be valuable to share thoughts about some essays that “stick.” I love all of our essays, or they wouldn’t be here. But I went over every one thinking about which ones were memorable in that early phase of a first read. I’ve asked our editorial team to do the same, and in the ramp up to our contest submission period we will share our reader experiences with some of our favorite essays.
I’m going first with what I loved on first read about Mariana McDonald’s essay, “The Snake.”
“It wasn’t my snake,” she said. “Not really.”
But that had always been the family lore. Moyra and her sister were out walking and encountered a rattlesnake—three whole feet of it—and went for someone to kill it.
I love the first sentence of this piece. Opening with a line of dialogue tells the reader s/he doesn’t have to wait to be in this narrative. That one short opening sentence sets up an immediate presence for the reader in the events. Someone seems to be addressing us.
McDonald uses a technique of talking about someone named Moyra. There is no first person narrator in this piece, no discernible “I.” It seems at first as if the narrator is recalling memories of knowing Moyra, a distinctly separate person, a childhood friend.
I was and still am awed by how much McDonald gets done in two short sentences. There is a conflict. There is mystery. There is a death. And we know right away there is a family committed to shaping its own narrative against the will of a principal player.
Initially I wrote it as a first person memoir, but found that unsatisfying. What I did like was juxtaposing my childhood experience with thoughts about social and environmental changes.
But there was something I was searching for in telling the story that had not yet become clear.
I rewrote it in the third person, not so much addressing myself, but stepping way back and observing. Doing that allowed me, ultimately, to rewrite the ending, discovering that the story was about accepting responsibility and seeking forgiveness.
The story was about separating myself from the actions and rationales foisted on me as a child, ones that made me a co-conspirator in a cruel and arrogant action.Marianna McDonald, interviewed 2019 for this blog post
I also love the structure of this piece. It begins with a rationalization from childhood, then pans out to show us the physical and emotional place where later regret was born. The narrator knows rattlesnakes could kill children, knows that she is supposed to tell about the snake but didn’t have to. She chose to initiate a chain of events that resulted in the snake’s execution.
“Once you found the source of the rattling, if you had a way, you killed it. That way, you were saving your own life, and maybe even someone else’s.”
Beyond the rationalization, though, is a break to describe the natural beauty of the Canadian landscape and the life it supported. That thriving environment is starkly changed years later when Moyra’s (McDonald’s) mother dies. The return to the childhood place is changed; likewise, the reader senses Moyra is in some kind of transition as well.
“Years later, when Moyra and her family went up the peninsula to bury her mother, only a few lady slippers remained. Moyra went to them like a pilgrim to a shrine.”
This is a wonderful line that supports the holy pilgrimage feel to the activity. Yes, a mother has died; yet the sense of homage and mourning extends beyond the parent’s funeral. Something more is pending.
In the final section of this essay, adult Moyra confronts her repressed feelings of guilt. It is not spelled out (the best essays don’t traffic in explicit summary), but it seems implied that grown Moyra is in her childhood home after her mother’s passing. She finds the photograph of herself and the mounted snake, tucked to the side of other pictures in a cabinet.
There’s a sense of Moyra looking at herself and the death of the snake with new eyes. A parent has died, and Moyra seems nudged into a new way of seeing herself and her actions, to be able to get outside of the event and find some compassion for herself.
Perhaps McDonald’s most impressive achievement in “The Snake” is her utter lack of sentimentality, no reliance on shallow, uncomplicated emotions at the expense of reason. Strong feelings permeate this essay, but they never become cliche, simple, or over-wrought. In the hands of a writer with less skill, this same series of events and feelings could become melodramatic and unreflective.
I don’t want to give it away, so I’ll just urge you to read this piece through to the end. Ending an essay can be more difficult than beginning it. The last line of “The Snake” is perfect. It both brings resolution and opens new questions. I think this is one reason I have not forgotten this narrative. Thank you, Mariana McDonald, for placing your essay with us to share with the world.
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